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Oct 24, 2012 | Katherine Butler
Our war against germs is doing more harm than good.
Western civilization guards its health as if constantly menaced by a giant public toilet handle. That's because we know how to read statistics, like we carry between two to 10 million bacteria from fingertip to elbow, or that germs can stay alive for up to three hours. As the Food and Drink Federation of Great Britain cheerfully points out, there can be as many germs under your ring as there are people in Europe.
We are a culture of germaphobes, spending as much as $930 million on antibacterial chemicals and $2.4 billion on soap at the end of the last decade. But is it possible that our war against germs is doing more harm than good?
1. Triclosan. For more than 30 years, triclosan has been used in hand soaps, cosmetics, deodorants, toothpastes, clothes, detergents, and more. The Centers for Disease Control reports that triclosan is found in the urine of nearly 75 percent of people tested. Other studies have shown it to be in the breast milk and blood samples of the general population. It is marketed under other names such as Microban, Irgasan DP-300, Lexol 300, Biofresh, Ster-Zac, Cloxifenolum, and more.
So now that we know we're likely hosting triclosan like Times Square hosts tourists, let's look at its safety. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently does not list triclosan as a hazardous ingredient; however, in light of several recent studies showing adverse effects in animal testing, the FDA is currently reviewing this position. Triclosan is shown to alter hormone regulation in frogs, resulting in altered behavior and possible infertility. A recent study in 2012 revealed that triclosan is "linked with muscle function impairments in humans and mice, as well as slowing the swimming of fish."
Liquid soap manufacturers, which as the New York Times points out, represent half of the $750 million market for liquid hand soaps in the United States, continue to claim triclosan has no harmful effects on humans. But while companies such as Dial keep using the questionable antimicrobial, others, such as Colgate-Palmolive, have started to replace tricolsan with different ingredients.
2. Natural selection. So imagine you're slathering your hands with antibacterial soap. While most of the bacteria on your skin reacts like it's Armageddon, a few remain. These hardy bacteria - now resistant to your soap - adapt and mutate to successfully ward off your next sudsy assault on their existence. Microbiologists refer to this process as "selection," and several studies show that it's causing some bacteria to resist antibiotics.
Then you get a bacterial infection, and your doctor prescribes antibiotics. As Discovery Health points out, "some antibacterial agents go after the same physiology of bacteria that prescription antibiotics do." This means that if the bacteria making you sick already has a resistance to antibacterial agents because of previous exposure, it's not going to work as well or at all. Think of it this way - do you really want superbugs playing out War of the Worlds in your body?
3. They are harming our ecosystem. The Natural Resources Defense Council shares that triclosan and its close cousin triclocarban "are found in high concentrations in sediments and sewage sludge where they can persist for decades." Further, triclosan is one of the most frequently detected chemicals found in U.S. streams. The hormonal disruptions it enables are thought to be damaging the reproductive health of certain fish. Meanwhile, some experts are concerned about the additional exposure to humans eating contaminated fish.
4. They are making us sick. It turns out our war on germs is having an ironic side effect - in some cases, it's actually making us sick. Because our bodies no longer need to fight germs like they did in bubonic times, studies show that some children are developing allergies. Apparently, allowing our bodies to rarely detect germs has made them more sensitive to everyday substances, like pollen and dust.
Marc McMorris is a pediatric allergist at the University of Michigan Health System. As he told LiveScience, "As a result, the immune system has shifted away from fighting infection to developing more allergic tendencies." Studies show that allergy rates in Americans from 1988 to 1994 are two to five times higher that rates from 1976 to 1980.
5. Soap and water works just as well. Why do colds, viruses and plagues spread in the first place? As much as we'd like to blame it on Gwyneth Paltrow shaking hands with a Chinese chef and then cheating on Matt Damon (as took place in the film Contagion), it's largely because we of the so-called civilized world don't like to wash our hands. In fact, as many as half of all men and a quarter of women fail to wash their hands after they have been to the bathroom.
As it turns out, what we learned in kindergarten is true - the CDC urges us to wash our hands with soap and water to prevent the spread of germs. But we do not need said soap to contain antibacterial agents. The FDA shares that it has no evidence that antibacterial soaps containing triclosan provide any extra health benefits.
Luckily, there are many products out there which do not have worrisome studies attached to their ingredients lists. Plain soap and water are your best friends in the fight against colds and flu. Start reading ingredient labels, weeding out anything with triclosan and triclocarban. If you need to wash your hands and nary a sink or soap dish is to be found, use antibacterial gels that contain alcohol as the primary germ-fighting ingredient. According to the CDC, they should work well if they contain at least 60% alcohol and your hands are not visibly dirty.
And if you really want to go natural (and have some extra dollars to spend), consider a line of clean (so to speak) soaps. Tracy Perkins, creator of the handmade soap company Strawberry Hedgehog, uses essential oils in her line. As she tells AlterNet, "essential oils derived directly from plants are powerfully antibacterial on their own, and used in appropriate dilution they are much gentler than the harsh antibacterial detergents available on the market."
So the next time you find yourself reaching for your antibacterial spray, ask yourself "to triclosan or not to triclosan?" And then wash the heck out of your hands with simple soap and water.
About the author
Katherine Butler's articles have been featured on NPR, CNN, EcoSalon, Grist and Forbes.